BEIJING – A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves:
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, the location of several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
CHINA CRITICIZES US SENDING BOMBERS IN OVERFLIGHT MISSION
China's foreign ministry criticized the U.S. decision to send a pair of B-1B Lancer long-range strategic bombers flying over the South China Sea, calling that a case of "flexing of military muscles" in a manner seen as threatening to Beijing.
The bombers based at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam performed their mission as President Donald Trump was preparing to meet his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, for talks dwelling mainly on North Korea's nuclear threat. It followed a "free of navigation operation" by a U.S. destroyer near Chinese-controlled Triton island in the South China Sea that Beijing also strenuously objected to.
The U.S. sees such missions as necessary to counter what it regards as China's excessive territorial claims in the South China Sea, considered by Beijing to be a Chinese waterway virtually in its entirety. The U.S. and others are also wary of possible Chinese plans to establish an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea similar to one it declared over a large section of the East China Sea in November 2013.
China says it will proceed with such a zone arrogating to itself with the right to direct all aviation in the area based on the perceived threat level. The U.S., Japan and others denounced the East China Sea zone as illegitimate and ignored it.
Responding to the presence of the bombers, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Friday that there was little point in such missions because "the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea has never been a problem."
"The Chinese side has always respected and supported the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea enjoyed by all countries under international law," Geng said. "However, we firmly oppose the flexing of military muscles by individual countries to endanger China's sovereignty and national security under the pretext of 'freedom of navigation and overflight.'"
CHINESE AIRCRAFT CARRIER MAKES HONG KONG PORT CALL
China's sole operating aircraft carrier took time out from exercises off the Chinese coast to make its first port call in Hong Kong as part of efforts to stir patriotism amid commemorations of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule 20 years ago.
The Liaoning steamed into port Friday with its escort of two guided missile destroyers and a missile frigate, dropping anchor at a naval base across from the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. Authorities distributed 2,000 tickets for visits to the ships, although only Hong Kong permanent residents were allowed to apply.
As the ships pulled in, they were welcomed with gongs, lion dancers, flag-waving greeters and plumes of spray from fire boats.
Rear Adm. Ding Yi, commander of the Liaoning battle group, said the visit would showcase China's naval development to residents of the territory that is deeply divided over its Chinese identity.
"Our navy group is here in Hong Kong to take part in celebrations, and this will enable our Hong Kong compatriots to enhance their understanding of the development of our military," Ding said after stepping off the Yinchuan, a destroyer.
Commissioned in 2012, the 60,000-ton Liaoning was built from an unfinished carrier purchased from Ukraine. It carries Chinese J-15 fighter jets along with helicopters and was undergoing exercises at sea before arriving in Hong Kong. China's second aircraft carrier is being constructed domestically based on the Liaoning and is undergoing final preparations before its commissioning.
US COMBAT SHIP VISITS VIETNAM
The Navy's littoral combat ship USS Coronado paid a call at Vietnam's Cam Ranh International Port as part of an annual naval engagement activity marking increasingly close security ties between the former antagonists. That followed its participation with the Philippine navy in patrols targeting piracy and kidnappings by ransom-seeking Abu Sayyaf militants.
The Navy said the annual engagement activity that began Wednesday "provides an opportunity for sailors from the U.S. and Vietnam People's Navy to interact and share knowledge to enhance mutual capabilities and strengthen solid partnerships." It was the eighth such event held between the two countries.
The U.S. and Vietnamese navies have grown closer over the past decade in the face of China's increasingly assertive moves to cement its claims to natural resources and the Spratly and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea, which Vietnam also claims. Ties between Beijing and Hanoi had appeared to be on the mend until late last month, when a vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, Lt. Gen. Fan Changlong, cut short a visit to Vietnam and canceled China's participation in a border exchange between the sides, reportedly over Vietnam's resumption of oil exploration in disputed waters.
In June, the Coronado put into the Cam Ranh for what was described as "expeditionary preventive maintenance" enabling greater flexibility in operations for such high-tech littoral combat ships with their trimaran hulls that were designed for maximum agility.
The Coronado's four days of patrols with the Philippine navy frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz in the Sulu Sea were aimed at strengthening the alliance between the two countries, whose relationship has been thrown into doubt in the year since independent-minded President Rodrigo Duterte took office.
The patrols were described by U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Arlo Abrahamson as "safe and routine."